This is the trailer to the 1955 film “The Blackboard Jungle”. Before the movie even begins we view a scrolling introduction that reads:
“…. Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency – its causes – and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools.The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step towards a remedy for any problem….”
This film highlights an obsession of 1950’s America and other western countries too. There was a widespread fear of juvenile delinquency, focusing around claims that the post World War II generation was lazy, spoiled, reckless, lacking in discipline, disrespectful of authority and violent.Teenagers of the time were condemned for their poor work and study ethic. Schools, especially in working class and disadvantaged areas of big cities in America were increasingly seen as a major cause of youthful misbehavior and teenage crime. Not only teenagers were blamed. Some critics also blamed their teachers for being lazy or too scared to assert their authority.
During the early fifties these concerns were exploited by politicians, assisted by cultural and civic elites who accused popular media, especially movies, music and comics, of morally and culturally corrupting youth. These themes are commonly brought up even in today’s modern society, where blame is often shifted away from parental authorities and focused on entertainment (video games, film and music are often criticized for its increased violent portrayals).
The word ‘teenager’ was created in the 1950’s due to the tremendous population of those in this age category and because teenagers started gaining more independence and freedoms. Teenagers were able to buy more things like food, clothes and music because of an increase in spending money, as well as use cars more often than before, increasing freedom. Teenagers were also becoming more independent in the type of music they preferred to listen to, no more listening to what their parents liked, teens flocked to the new music of the decade, which was rock and roll. Of course, this newly found independence would often result in conflict between the parents and the teens. The media played on these emotions and often portrayed teenagers as juvenile delinquents. Peers easily influence teenagers, often at that stage in life what peers think and do becomes more important than what parents think and say.
Politician John McKeon recalled life in the 1950’s. “What I remember most about the 50s were rules. Rules, rules, rules… for everything. Rules about clothes — which clothes you could wear when. Rules about church. Rules about streets. Rules about play. The dance rules were different. Dance with girls and hold this hand, but then… you could do whatever you wanted to do! Dance looked like freedom. The only freedom this kid knew.”
The older generations were especially worried about “juvenile delinquency.” In the 1950s, this didn’t mean dealing in street drugs or drive-by shootings, but rather chewing gum in class, souping up a hot rod and talking back to parents.
Rock’n’roll music was attacked on all fronts, with records banned and smashed. Radio DJs were ordered not to play certain songs; rock singers (especially Elvis) were condemned; and the career of rock promoter Alan Freed, the man who named the music rock’n’roll, was destroyed by a government investigation.
With post World War II adults becoming more strict and rule oriented, many of them forgot what it was like to be a teenager. It’s natural for teens to rebel, question authority, and seek individual freedom. With no real film, music or entertainment geared towards teenagers in the late 40’s early 50’s, Teenagers felt left out, ignored, and disenfranchised. Seeking comfort in their peers, new rock n roll music, and overall rebelling against the rules was their way of seeking independence. The mass hysteria is caused with the adults in the US was exactly what teenagers wanted.
Remmers, H.H., and D.H. Radler. The American Teenager. New York: Charter Books, 1957, 16–17, 40–41, 44–46, 66–67.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) directed by Richard Brooks